In the late 1990s, Louis Berkal, then rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Winnipeg, had a favour to ask Bill Weissmann.
Rabbi Berkal, who died in 2009, was supposed to speak to a local high school class touring the synagogue. Would Weissmann fill in for him and tell them about Judaism?
Weissmann had misgivings. But he said yes. And all these years later, the 73-year-old is still saying yes to telling people about Jewish faith and culture.
“People seem to appreciate it, and I enjoy answering their questions,” said Weissmann, who retired in 2022 after working as a teacher, sports administrator, entrepreneur, manager and college instructor. “I think I get more out of it than I give.”
On Feb.7, Weissmann will be honoured for his service on behalf of Winnipeg’s Jewish community when he receives the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for the Advancement of Interreligious Understanding.
At the ceremony, which will be presided over by Lt.-Gov. Anita Neville, the first member of the Jewish community to hold that position, Weissmann will be recognized for being a bridge builder and goodwill ambassador on behalf of the Jewish community in Winnipeg.
As the office of the lieutenant-governor said in announcing the award: “With his quiet and gentle manner, Weissmann explained Judaism to religious studies classes at Manitoba colleges and universities. His professional expertise, passion for his own faith tradition and community, and personal warmth and openness became the embodiment of Judaism to the rich and varied spiritual and religious traditions of Winnipeg and Manitoba.”
For Weissmann, who also served as a shammes at Shaarey Zedek, receiving the award is humbling.
“I’m very honoured to get it,” he said of the award, given annually since 2011 to a Manitoban “who best embodies understanding between all religious groups.”
“I didn’t do it for the recognition,” he said, adding promoting interfaith understanding is just “something we have to do if we are to flourish as a community.”
Weissmann has been part of the Jewish community in Winnipeg since 1962, when he arrived from Romania with his parents, both of whom were Holocaust survivors.
“The Holocaust was ever present in our house,” he said, even if it was “rarely spoken about.”
All he knows about his parents’ experiences is simply that they survived. Many of their siblings and other family members did not.
He remembers his mother was “angry at God her entire life” because of it, and rarely attended synagogue due to her anger and pain.
But Weissmann’s father took him to services, which left a strong impression on the young boy.
“He didn’t impose religion on me, but he passed on to me a sense of quiet inclusiveness,” he said.
For Weissmann, who is married with one son, that sense of inclusiveness continues today, explaining the spectrum of what it means to be Jewish to all faiths.
“My goal is to be a bridge builder between different groups,” he said.
Winnipeg is a good model for how different faith groups can get along, he believes.
“I think we really care about each other here,” he said. “The interfaith community is very entwined and strong.”
He especially appreciates the support that is shown when an antisemitic act takes place in Canada or other countries. “Winnipeg is a good home for Jews,” he said.
Along with his interfaith activities, Weissmann is well-known in the community for blowing the shofar on holidays.
For former Shaarey Zedek Rabbi Matthew Leibl, Weissmann is “friendly, warm, inviting, and inclusive. He made people feel welcome and comfortable, which is no small feat in a religious setting like a synagogue where people often feel unfamiliar, unsure, and out of their element.”
He is a “phenomenal ambassador for Judaism and Jewish traditions,” Rabbi Leibl added.
For many young people “he was the first Jewish person, or at least the first memorable Jewish person, they’d ever met. His ability to make Judaism interesting, relevant, and give young audiences something meaningful to take away is a very special skill, and exactly why he deserves this award after doing that day in and day out.”
Another former Shaarey Zedek rabbi, Alan Green, noted that Weissmann has been the “welcoming, smiling face of Judaism for Winnipeg school children representing the whole ethnic diversity that is today’s Canadian reality.”
Weissmann “punctured stereotypes and dissolved prejudices by providing young people and their teachers direct experience of the basics of Jewish spiritual life,” he went on to say.
But perhaps his most important achievement Rabbi Green said, “was to exemplify, in his person, the way a modern Jew should be in our world: strongly identified with who we are, while affirming the diverse identities of everyone around us.”
Weissmann, he said, exemplified this approach, showing how “each strand of our human diversity should contribute to a rich tapestry of appreciation for the whole of humankind.”